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E - 8 : Sipping & Dancing into Civilisation

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

When writing my pieces on Greek theatre, I realized that Dionysus, the Greek Good of wine, was also the God of pleasure, festivities and drinking frenzy. I wondered for a moment how this was all connected but then had to focus on finishing my blogs.

But the thought of why there was a God for getting drunk kept lingering in my mind. There is Zeus, the Sky Father, who maintains order in the universe. His wife Hera, Mother Earth, does the same for our planet. Then there are specific Gods who govern subsets of above under Zeus’ and Hera’s subtle guidance such as Poseidon (Ruler of the Seas), Pluto (Ruler of the Underworld), Mars (God of War), Aphrodite (Goddess of Love), Demeter (Goddess of Agriculture), Apollo (God of the Sun , Healing, Prophecy & Music), Athena (Goddess of Crafts), Artemis (Goddess of Hunting) and Mercury (God of Trade & Commerce). They all run areas of vital interest and importance to mankind.

Bacchus (Dinoysus) carved by Michelangelo in Florence

But why is there a God for getting drunk and for inebriate festivities like the bacchanalia? Most people I know apologise when they had too much to drink the night before and would not consider having a hang-over as a batch of honor. But the Greek did. As ever so often, a bit of luck helped finding an answer. As I was contemplating why getting drunk deserved its own God, the Wallstreet Journal reviewed the new book “Drunk – How we sipped, danced and stumbled our way to civilization”.

The author, Prof. Edward Slingerland, a distinguished philosopher and scholar of Asian studies at the University of British Colombia, takes an evolutionary approach. He provides unexpected insights into the “alcohol-soaked origins of civilization”. Slingerland noticed that all societies around the world dabble in stuff that gets people high and loosens them up – be it alcohol, cannabis, or opium. He also realized that all ancient societies had rites to get high in groups – all had festivals of drunkenness and giddiness. All you need to look at are ancient pottery shards with depictions of poppies, hemp, and wine consumption.

Titian's Bacchanalia Painting - 1523 - 1526 - now in the Prato in Madrid

The Roman Bacchanalia, the festival of Bacchus or Dionysus, are probably the most well-known. They arrived from Greece via Magna Graecia in Italy’s south and the Etruscans from the north. This fact alone is interesting indicating ancient roots well before the time of writing. Whilst in Greece the drinking festivals were held at private homes, they were almost public events, linked to the performance of Greek tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays. The Bacchanalia though were a mystery cult, its participants sworn to absolute secrecy. Nobody could participate without being properly initiated – wonder how much drinking the initiation entailed. Am sure a lot.

Mosaic of Dionysus in a Roman Villa in Corinth

Slingerland rejects the opinion that human’s quest for intoxication are “evolutionary mistakes” where the pleasure center of our brain gets hi-jacked or we suffer from evolutionary hang-over, like in our quest for sugar even though we now have enough food. He ascribes our desire for getting high as a necessary step for developing large and complex societies. In his views, getting intoxicated together helped the testosterone driven and aggressive humans to overcome their tribal boundaries, building trust and cooperate with strangers. The common drinking, singing, and dancing created strong bonds between the participating individual men. It converts the testosterone driven individuals to a testosterone driven community. Drinking together before going to war was and is a well-known phenomenon which still reflect this. Nor surprisingly, women were excluded.

Temple of Dionysus next to the big Greek Theatre in Pergamon (Turkey - Aegean Coast)

Slingerland’s book becomes truly interesting when he combines evidence from archeology, history, neuroscience, psychopharmacology, and religious practices into a compelling new narrative. One of the most interesting chapters is his take on creativity. He sees creativity as editing mistakes in our way of thinking, leading occasionally to epiphanies when thoughts combine by chance. Since we lose the capacity of thinking straight and clearly when drunk, alcohol facilitates occasionally creative thought. Not always though. Many stupid ideas have been born by intoxication as well. But evolution does not care. Only the good ideas survive.

Roman Dionysus Temple in Jerash, Jordan

His thesis also explains why there are so many Dionysus temples throughout the Hellenistic world. The Greek were fully aware of the benefits of drinking and institutionalised this type of male bonding. As hoplites soldiers, they defended their country together, as democrats they shared their government, they joined each other in large theatres watching Greek tragedy and comedy reflecting about society and life and bonded with wine and dance (and often sexual excesses) until late into the night.

Decimation - Removal of the Tenth - A terrifying type of punishment in the Roman Army

It comes as no surprise that militaristic Rome looked at these events with suspicion. The Roman elite did not want common people to bond – they thought it was dangerous for the state. Their idea of society was rather like a large boot camp where ordinary people served and did as told. For this, bonding was not necessary. It was done by force. When a legion did not show enough fighting spirit, it was “decimated”, meaning one out of ten soldiers – chosen by straw - had to be killed by his colleagues. What a brutal way to enforce discipline! We tend to forget that the Roman Army was a citizen’s army. It became professional only at the end of the Republic when the big conquests were mostly done.

Happy to get more - Bronze Dionysus from Pompeii

The last aspect of Slingerland’s book which intrigued me most was his analysis of our DNA development. Rather than getting rid of the “pointless” quest for intoxication,we developed proteins to limit the damage and dispose of the toxic stuff we drink or inhale. Our body’s response was making tools so we could have more of the “good stuff”. Amazing conclusion.

Makes me wonder whether the Greek’s institutionalized use of drugs was a better way than our current policy of suppression, denial and black market.

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